Gunder-friend Productions

biography of Helen D. Gunderson

About Helen D. Gunderson

Helen is a fourth-generation Iowan who grew up on a farm near the small town of Rolfe in northwest Iowa. Her ancestors in the Rolfe area include the Gundersons, who were farmers, and the Lighters, who published the Rolfe Reveille newspaper in the early 1900s. Helen has a bachelor's degree in physical education from Iowa State University, a master's degree in instructional technology from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and a master of divinity degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary.

In 1980, while living in Fargo, Helen produced a major slide/sound show for the all-class school reunion in her hometown of Rolfe. In 1981, she left the Midwest to attend the seminary. In 1988, she produced two slide/sound shows for Rolfe's 125th anniversary. After that, she intended to stop photographing Iowa and get on with life in California. However, she began returning to Iowa on photo forays.

road1940.jpg (46615 bytes) The Road I Grew Up On, a project exploring rural life, emerged out of those trips. It has received grants from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and the State Historical Society of Iowa. Helen hopes that someday, she will finish the book that has evolved from the project. There is a video about it on YouTube.
In 1993, Helen moved permanently back to Iowa, settling in the Ames area. In the mid-1990s, under the auspices of the Media Resource Center at Iowa State University and the Iowa Sesquicentennial Commission, she and a colleague conducted video production workshops in preparation for the state's sesquicentennial.

Currently, Helen is a retired communications generalist who likes photography, video production, and conducting interviews about local history. She has created a web site for the alumni of her hometown high school that had its last graduation in 1990. That site is now dormant but was active from 1999 until about 2010. She also had created a website called The Gilbert Gazette for the community of Gilbert where there is no newspaper or radio station.

Helen learned the basics of film production with a Super 8mm movie camera. She bought it in 1968 to film classroom and intramural activities while teaching junior high physical education in Duluth. Two years later, she was frustrated with her Kodak Instamatic still camera when the flash cubes did not work consistently. She went to Yoho Photo in Duluth, where the salesperson sold her a 35mm Canon for $200. Helen was leery about learning to use the settings on the new camera, but the staff at the store taught her to use it and their darkroom. For many years, Helen has enjoyed the benefits of digital technology for audio and visual productions.

In 2001, she equipped her computer for digital video editing and produced Growing against the Grain. It interprets the work of the Audubon County Family Farms in sustainable agriculture and direct marketing products. Also, she did the black and white photographs (not the color cover photo) for sociologist Mike Bell's book, Farming for us All, about the Practical Farmers of Iowa organization

Helen continued to use film technology for still photography, but in the spring of 2004, she got her first digital still camera, a Canon Rebel. She says it is lots of fun and does extremely high quality work. She would never want to go back to the days of developing her own black and white negatives and printing them, waiting for a store to process color film, editing movie film with a razor blade and splice tape, or damaging film in a projector. Then again, she is glad she learned the basics of photography and film production long before the digital era.

She loves the ease of sharing video projects via YouTube. Her most popular post is of home movies she shot in the 1970s of her father and neighborhood men farming. It has had over 48,000 viewers. Her latest production is an essay about women in agriculture and uses voices and images from her archives along with images of modern day women involved in agriculture.

Helen finds great satisfaction in being able to look at something ordinary and see beauty or meaning in the scene. She says, I feel privileged to be able to shape what I see into works of art and to share them with other people. Whatever the medium of artistic expression, I hope that some of what I produce is soulful and helps others reflect on life beneath the surface of things.


Helen standing by a rain barrel and PFI award sign at the rental house
she owns next door to the house where she lives in Ames.

Helen has been a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa since the mid-1990s and received the organization's first landowner appreciation award in 2013. Among other factors, the award honored her for renting a third of her inherited 500-plus acres of Pocahontas County farm land to a young farmer, who is transitioning the property to organic practices. She also has prairie projects as part of the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program on her farm land.

Helen gardened in pots on her apartment deck for several years and now has an "urban farm" with chickens in her large yard in Ames. She believes in purchasing, cooking, serving, and eating locally-grown food. She has no car but manages very well in getting around town throughout the year via bicycle, bus, catching rides with friends, or borrowing rustic pickup trucks for "farm" errands.


Left to right: Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Roger Lande,
Governor Terry Branstad, Helen, and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds.

In October 2011, Helen gave 60 acres of permanent pasture, CRP prairie, and crop land to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. The property has been named the DeElda Heritage Area in memory of Helen's grandmother DeElda Lighter Gunderson. Click here for more information and photos.

(updated June 24, 2015)